Leading with Grace
An educator's perspective on minority mental health awareness for students and educators alike
July 29, 2021
We really are, and have been, operating in the middle of a pandemic.
Let that statement sink in. Like really resonate.
We are living in an unprecedented time.
Students and teachers alike have heard this phrase countless times over. It became the new dreadful greeting, akin to a hollow, How are you?
These “unprecedented times that we’re living in”—which we acknowledged every few seconds—quickly became our “new normal.”
Expectations and comments quickly went from Wow, you’re doing ____ in a pandemic? to, Why aren’t you taking advantage of quarantine in this way? We chased productivity and refused to fully sit with all aspects of the current times, good and bad. We have guilted others and ourselves whenever we might fall short of our previous ideal selves.The failure to recognize our humanity was abrupt. The grace that should have been allowed for each of us—teachers and students alike—just as humans in general, quickly evaporated.
And to be clear, this change did not happen because grace was no longer necessary. Grace is always necessary. Instead, the grace evaporated because it was no longer easy to give. It was no longer conventionally easy or popular to sympathize with the plight of others. Everything became focused on the path towards returning to normal—as if there would ever be a normal.
Over 192,000,000 people worldwide were diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus. 34,000,000 of those were in the US, with another million cases happening in North Carolina. 4,130,000 people died from the COVID-19 virus worldwide. 610,000 of those deaths were in the States. 13,578 of those were in North Carolina.
“How is a student supposed to “return to normal” in a year where society as a whole had been confined in extreme isolation due to an unknown and deadly virus?”
As a Teach For America corps member teaching at a Title I school, it is my responsibility to know that our school’s demographics were disproportionately represented in these numbers. So the question then arises: just how exactly is a student supposed to return to “normal” while still living through those “unprecedented times”? How “normal” could a school year be following a summer full of blatant murder and disregard for the lives of individuals who looked like them? How is a student supposed to “return to normal” during a year in which society as a whole has been confined in extreme isolation due to an unknown and deadly virus? Unable to connect with loved ones, say final goodbyes, or overdue hellos, share fond laughs or memories or have a comforting cry with others beyond the space of their homes.
Add on the fact that 20.6 million people lost their jobs in the past year. The burden of providing for their families fell to the shoulders of some students who took on more responsibilities out of necessity or a sense of duty. This burden required them to step out of the safety of quarantine and risk in order to make ends meet—working full-time jobs not because they want to, but because they have to. For their livelihoods, for the livelihoods of their family. None of this is normal. None of this is simply a footnote. And yet we pushed and continue to push to create a “normal” school year. A year lost from their formative years with little to no acknowledgment.
As I write this I can already hear my fellow educators saying, Yeah? Well, what about us? We had it bad too but you don’t see us complaining! And therein lies the problem. Not the fact that students might vocalize the issue more, but that we the adults are not. Because again, these are not precedented times. We know that. We feel it. And yet we’re forcing all to act as though that’s “normal.”
I argue for my students and my own mental health that we must take a look at this new set of parameters and adjust—or even look at the old ones and say, This can be improved. This must be improved. Our mental wellness is paramount, tied to our personal life outcomes, as well as our ability to function in society at large. We see our societal neglect of mental health in the education sphere by the teacher burnout numbers and student academic success, and a lack of proper acknowledgment of the seriousness of the negative aspects. More than one thing can be true. We can acknowledge the seriousness of the things that we’ve faced down this past year. Acknowledge the pain, hurt, stress, and effect those things have had on us and our mental well beings while also trying to highlight silver linings and look at the “bright side” at times to bolster spirits. Both can be true and both should be focused on.
All too often in an effort to “focus on the bright side,” we invalidate everything else causing us to feel and share the guilt and lack of empathy toward those who may not share the same perspective at that particular moment. Instead of solely celebrating that we achieved X thing despite and in spite of certain obstacles, we should shift our perspectives to How can we remove those obstacles? How can we make it so that the brilliance of our students and our educators is not constantly butting up against unnecessary and avoidable barriers in the name of a good or motivating story? Instead of celebrating the fact that a student got an A despite compromising their own mental wellbeing to do so, we must consider what can be changed to allow this brilliance to shine through while also making sure that we as individuals are taking care of ourselves.
“I argue for my students and my own mental health that we must take a look at this new set of parameters and adjust—or even look at the old ones and say, This can be improved. This must be improved.”
Some of the mental health struggles I’ve seen in both educators and students alike over the course of the past year have been extreme burnout, stress-induced illnesses, depression, and anxiety. I cannot tell you the number of students who have said the demands of trying to keep up with schoolwork in a pandemic while living in quarantine-induced isolation has been too much. Many of my students had to shoulder significant additional responsibilities this past year, supporting their families monetarily, emotionally, and otherwise.
It all adds up.
Similarly, myself and fellow educators felt the extreme strain of trying to put forth our best selves day in and day out, pouring into our students despite our own emotional, mental, physical, spiritual depletion. That strain, of course, was compounded by the stress of maintaining a standard of professional excellence even in the face of the countless curveballs that came our way week after week.
Too often we as a society have said that mental health and mental illness simply do not matter. When a person breaks their arm or leg, it is not expected that they operate at 100% optimal capacity during or immediately following said injury. The same should be true when dealing with mental illness, though the majority of times we do not offer adequate accommodations or space and resources for healing and restoration.
If someone is suffering from acute depression or an anxiety disorder, we should not respond with, Oh, you are depressed/suffer from severe anxiety? Here are 10,000 things for you to do and I expect them at the same deadline as when you were not depressed or not anxious.
The keyword here is "illness." There’s nothing wrong with being sick—we do not look at the common cold as a blight on our character or blight on our humanity, but instead we look at it as an illness which can be treated, needs to be managed, and needs to be handled with deliberate care, oftentimes by pursuing professional assistance. Attempting to be productive and strong when battling mental illness is not sustainable. We would benefit to adopt the same outlook as the rest we offer our physical bodies.
We also know that Black and Brown people in our society suffer from mental health illnesses at a high rate—higher than commonly reported even due to a lack of diagnoses and treatment stemming from mental health stigma in these communities. Black and Brown individuals are more likely to suffer from environmental issues that can contribute towards stress-related mental health symptoms than their white counterparts. Educators of Black and Brown children must be fully aware of these realities, keeping them in the forefront of their approach to teaching.
This past school year, I adopted a few practical strategies to try and maintain my own mental wellness and contribute towards bettering that of my students. Here are few:
- Get a Therapist. The biggest help I’ve gotten this year on my continuous journey toward mental wellness has been getting a therapist. I know there is a weight that is felt with saying, Yes, I’m in therapy because of a fear of judgement and assumptions being cast by others. But again, it’s important to remember that we do not look at someone with assumptions or judgement if they go to the doctor for a physical checkup or because they were sick. In the same way, it is important to me that I find a therapist— one who looks like me and who I can relate to—and stick with them. Being committed to taking my mental wellness seriously meant bringing in the expert resources available to guide me on my journey. Getting a therapist truthfully changed my life and the dynamics of my daily push for my mental wellness. Though there are several socioeconomic barriers that also need to be evaluated when trying to access care, if at all possible I would recommend this tip as the first thing towards bettering and maintaining mental wellness to anyone.
- Journaling. Create space for mental reflection through journaling. This has allowed for me to unload some of the burden for my mind whenever I need it. In addition, being able to look back on some reflections to acknowledge growth and previous instances of perseverance showcase for inspiration for a future date has been very helpful
- Meditate. Meditation, much like journaling, has allowed for me to do some of the inner work on myself for maintenance and repair. Having the space and time to really sit with myself has been crucial for me living in my truth and working to ensure that I am always doing so. This all adds up in enabling me to provide my best self for my students.
- Realize that you have the power and ability to say no and to control your plate. As educators, we are repeatedly tempted to try and do everything and a half, but more often than not, our plate is already full. At times we can take on more responsibilities, but sometimes we also know that we should not take on more. One tip that I have been doing my best to live by since this past year is respecting that line of “I should not” and giving myself grace to do what I can do at the moment.
- Practice active listening. I am not a clinically trained mental health professional, but I am capable of being a good listener. Never underestimate the power of listening to someone. We educators need to really listen to our students—to seek to understand them in a non-judgemental way. It was troubling how often my students would tell me that they don’t feel heard. In an effort to address those needs, I opened every day of class with the same two things: music to welcome the class and a “Daily Vibe Check.” The latter was a time for us to ask each other How are you for real? Or, as we put it, What’s the vibe today and why? And while the generic teenager response of, I’m chill or I’m chilling may have been a frequent one, leaving space to truly listen was deeply appreciated by my students. Taking time to listen, understand, empathize, and to direct to the best possible outcome was the most important practice that I pursued in my first year of teaching.
- Know your boundaries and your limits. Educators are not licensed therapists. Capitalizing on the relationships with those at the school who can help our students during times of need, knowing my boundaries, and referencing our students toward their direction is extremely important. We listen and then we support. Always there to remind our students that we are a sympathetic ear and supporting individual and I’m always there to guide our students towards the best possible help.
In truth, I don’t quite know what the exact right steps are at this moment. While I might have some ideas, there are also plenty of other pioneers in this field with additional perspectives and ideas. Unfortunately, this is such a massive problem. In reality, none of us have a foolproof way to destigmatize mental health struggles and promote mental wellbeing. But I do know: there is strength in numbers, strength in vulnerability, and strength in truth.
There is a clear intersection of our schools’ demographics and the stigmatization of mental health issues, and I work daily in my classroom to address this. I hope that every single last one of all of my students knows that the space we occupy together for an hour and 15 minutes every single day is a safe one—one where they don’t have to hide their realities or purposely try to focus only on certain aspects of their realities. My deepest hope is that my students know I am in their corner, always advocating for them, always thinking of them.
I hope that they know their mental wellbeing is of the utmost importance for me. I hope that it will be of the utmost importance for themselves as well, because I’ve been there and I know that choosing the alternate route—one where mental health is deprioritized—has dire consequences.
Tony Callwood is a Teach For America 2020 Charlotte-Piedmont Triad corps member who teaches Social Studies at Julius L. Chambers High School. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in Psychology with a minor in Social and Economic Justice. He has interests in mental health awareness and advocacy, especially within minority communities. In his spare time, Tony enjoys spending time with his loved ones, listening to music, and reading a good book.